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Marlins cope with Jose Fernandez’s death

Miami Marlins players wearing a jersey in honor

Miami Marlins players wearing a jersey in honor of pitcher Jose Fernandez gather around the pitching mound before a baseball game against the New York Mets, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Miami. Fernandez died in a boating accident Sunday. Photo Credit: AP / Lynne Sladky

MIAMI — The Marlins began their impossible task last night without Jose Fernandez, clinging only to his memory, by wrapping their arms around the welcoming Mets, of all people. And when the unfathomable journey was over, they circled the pitcher’s mound, shoulder to shoulder, leaving their black caps, the game ball and a 7-3 victory dedicated to the memory of their fallen friend, whose life ended in a shocking boat crash early Sunday morning.

“It was all pure emotion,” Giancarlo Stanton said. “Our eyes were filled with water, but we found a way to do it.”

That final scene involved Marlins manager Don Mattingly bending over to kiss the black No. 16 on the mound, going beyond the others who patted the painted-on tribute. Mattingly often struggled to speak in the 36 hours since Fernandez was discovered on that rocky outpost off Miami Beach, but in talking after Monday’s win, he sounded a little more at peace.

“That’s his spot” Mattingly said. “I was just saying goodbye.”

Like Fernandez’s imprint on the Marlins, on the whole South Florida region, that image of the Marlins interlocking circle, in honor of their lost teammate, will be remembered forever throughout baseball. Nobody knew how last night’s game would unfold, how the deep emotional strain would affect the Marlins. But what transpired was perfect, and the Mets played an important role, one they could be proud of, regardless of the final score.

During the pregame ceremony, both teams set up along the foul lines, in traditional fashion. But after the national anthem, the Marlins and Mets converged in the middle of the infield, sharing hugs and handshakes, baseball brothers more than opponents for a night.

“I was trying to keep it together,” said Dee Gordon, whose leadoff home run set the tone for the evening. “When I saw them coming over, I couldn’t hold it in.”

The night was heartbreaking at times, and for those in uniform — the entire roster wore Fernandez’s No. 16 for the series opener against the Mets — it was almost unbearable. The Marlins, after a 50-minute team meeting, took batting practice beneath a giant, black-and-white 16 high above them on the centerfield video board. Off to the side, not far from the on-deck circle, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria declared that Fernandez’s 16 would be retired.

“Nobody’s going to wear it,” Loria said. “I can tell you that now. Nobody will wear that number again.”

That was the first immediate, definitive gesture by the Marlins to solidify the legacy of Fernandez, who perished early Sunday morning, along with his two friends, Emilio Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25. Otherwise, the team was still struggling with the tremendous loss, both for the Marlins and the surrounding community. They canceled Sunday’s game with the Braves, but a day later, it was time to return to work.

In a tragic twist, Fernandez was supposed to pitch last night, only because the Marlins pushed him back from his scheduled Sunday start. Mattingly, still fighting back tears yesterday, said the decision continued to haunt him, as did team president David Samson.

“We told him that this was his day,” Samson said. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot. If he had pitched, maybe fate would be different. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, too. There’s been a lot of talking and a lot of crying and a lot of praying and a lot of trying to make sense of something that you can’t make sense of.”

The Marlins made sure this still was Fernandez’s day, but in a way that no one would have imagined, not for someone just 24, so full of life with a brilliant future ahead. The team put together a touching pregame tribute. The night began with a trumpet rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as a Fernandez photo slide show played on the videoboard.

The Marlins’ starters flanked the pitcher’s mound during the ceremony. A sobbing Marcell Ozuna tried to cover his face with his cap. Tears streamed down the faces of Stanton and Martin Prado, as well, but the Marlins quickly showed they were ready to honor Fernandez. Gordon began his at-bat from the right side, a tribute to Fernandez, and then launched his first home run this season — into the second deck. Gordon was in tears as he scored, and upon his return to the dugout, wept as he was greeted by a series of hugs.

“I wanted to get back to my teammates as soon as possible,” Gordon said. “And I was wondering why [Fernandez] wasn’t on the top step cheering.”

Instead, the Marlins celebrated Fernandez last night. And for a few hours, that allowed them to see some light through the darkness.

With Marc Carig

New York Sports